By Rich Weissman
The sports world is full of examples of athletes who have worked hard, struggled and sacrificed to lead their teams to victory. The glare of the television lights reveals their champagne-soaked hair, their smiles, and their hugs of family, fellow players and team owners. The memories of these scenes are often etched in our collective memories. We often define these athletes and teams as champions.
Yet, champions can also be found in more mundane surroundings, absent the champagne and television lights, but often still the target of adulation, support, and gratitude of company employees, management, suppliers, customers, and stockholders. Successful Lean manufacturing programs often have a champion, the person with the passion, drive, leadership, training and commitment to lead a company to improved operational and financial performance, as well as increased supplier performance and customer satisfaction. Lean champions are often the most important part of lean initiative, offering a blend of personality and technical ability that provides a rallying point for all stakeholders.
Champions are certainly more than process improvement cheerleaders. They are often technically proficient project managers who thoroughly understand the underlying business issues that lean needs to address. Additionally, they set and maintain the goals of the improvement projects, making sure that they are aligned with the overall business priorities and objectives. Lean champions also act as coaches and teachers, educating the entire organization, including the extended supply base, on the importance of Lean. They are facilitators and negotiators, helping to smooth out internal technical and organizational issues to keep lean initiatives on track.
Perhaps the most important element of being a Lean champion is the ability to stimulate and motivate the workforce and supplier community. Above all, successful Lean champions seem to work well with all types of employees and navigate through organizational minefields.
“Corporate cultures have an undercurrent that can destroy many good intentions,” says Susan McGinley, a Lexington, Mass.- based operations consultant supporting the semiconductor processing industry. “Lean cuts across many corporate boundaries and it is difficult to get employees onboard without them seeing the eventual benefits.”
McGinley sees a Lean champion as an executive level person with a clear vision, good communication skills, and a relentless tenacity to implement corporate wide change that will improve everyday work life and the corporate bottom line. She sees that Lean philosophies are simple, yet implementation is next to impossible without a lean champion.
“The most successful Lean implementation I’ve seen was initiated at the executive level and championed by the vice president of operations,” says McGinley. “The least successful never got past the planning stage. They didn’t have a Lean champion.”
In some companies there are several Lean champions, with some having their foundations in related disciplines. “Our Lean champions are a bit broader based than in some organizations,” says Dick Rappoli, a manufacturing programs manager for Lynn, Mass.-based General Electric. “We employ Lean Event Teams to work on specific projects, and these teams often consist of from three to twelve employees. The team is usually lead by a Six Sigma Black Belt.”
Rappoli sees these leaders as Lean champions who are technically proficient and have significant leadership skills. “We have many Lean champions working on a variety of projects,” he says. “In our environment, they cannot be afraid to think outside the box and try new things.”
Rappoli adds that the Lean Event Teams are designed to be cross-functional and report into a senior leadership team, but they remain with a great deal of focus. “We may not call the leaders Lean champions per se, but their training, focus, and commitment certainly put them squarely in that role.”
Lean champions are leaders. They bring focus and enthusiasm to a process that can be both exciting and frustrating at the same time. The Lean champion needs a blend of the right personality, technical expertise, a solid belief in the principles of Lean and strong management support. But they cannot be successful by themselves. Successful Lean implementations take strong organizational collaboration. The champion may lead, but a strong team is essential for success.
Endicott College Assistant Professor Rich Weissman teaches management courses for the School of Business and the Van Loan Graduate School. He is also the director of corporate education, which includes the Center for Leadership, Endicott’s management development institute. He is vice chair of the planning committee and also serves on the technology committee and the Institution Review Board. A practitioner turned educator, Weissman has more than 25 years of experience in all facets of procurement and supply chain management. He has held positions with large business units of Fortune 500 companies, medium-sized contract manufacturing companies, small venture-backed Internet startup firms, and third-party procurement, consulting and strategic sourcing firms.
Rich holds an M.S. in Management from Lesley University and a B.A. in Economics from Rutgers University. He is past president of the Purchasing Management Association of Boston and a recipient of the Harry J. Graham Memorial Award, the highest honor bestowed by the association.
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